Tracing Nelson Mandela’s Life on His 100th Birth Anniversary

On 12 June 1964, Nelson Mandela was awarded a life sentence for conspiring to overthrow the state.

3 min read

"The idea for a democratic and free society,
It is an ideal for which I hope to live and to see realised.
But my lord, if it needs be,
It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

These were the words stated by the legendary Nelson Mandela, a revolutionary, freedom-fighter and change-maker in 1950s and 1960s South Africa, where a majority black population was ostracised and subjugated by white supremacist groups.

Mandela was the face of the resistance to Apartheid, and after years of trying to negotiate equal rights for the black community through peaceful dialogue, he finally moved the masses into taking up arms to fight for their rightful place in the nation.

For his role in leading the revolution, Mandela was arrested in 1962 on charges of conspiring to overthrow the state and on 12 June 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in the infamous Rivonia Trial.


What Made Mandela Take Up Arms?

Born in a remote village in South Africa, Mandela was only 9 when his father died and he was sent to live with his uncle, a tribal leader. When he was 19, he was sent to study at a Methodist college. It was here that he first learned of the African National Congress (ANC).

The ANC was back then a local political party, fighting for freedom and equality for the black community in a white-dominated South Africa. 

Mandela began to identify with the ANC’s ideology and was finally recruited to join in 1944. Upon joining, he built up political mileage and set up a radical youth wing of the party.

They weren’t talking about traditional leaders. They were talking about modern leaders and this opened my eyes.
Nelson Mandela, in the BBC Documentary

However, Mandela soon realised that the white government was determined to reject dialogue, and were comfortable with crushing any resistance by force. At this point, Mandela along with 155 others, had already been arrested and charged with plotting against the state, in a trial that went on for four-and-a-half years.

Soon after, in March 1960, a huge gathering of black people staged a protest against the white government – 69 people were killed, many of whom were shot in the back as they were running away.

Mandela, in a symbolic gesture, made a public display of burning his pass – one which allowed black people access in designated white areas. The government responded by declaring a state of emergency. The ANC was banned.

Mandela became a wanted man and had to go into hiding.


Mandela's Comeback

Mandela however, was planning a comeback. In 1962, he left the state illegally to raise funds and recruit people to raise arms against the government, the only way the community would win its freedom, according to him.

Upon his return, he was arrested by intelligence agencies on the charge of leaving the country without a passport. At his trial, he said he was a black man being wrongly tried by a white man’s court.

But it was later in 1962 that the Rivonia trial began, where the court had to decide on a verdict on Mandela, which some feared would amount to the death sentence.

On 12 June 1964, the judge awarded him a life sentence with hard labour, leaving his followers relieved.

After serving 27 years in prison, first on Robben Island, and later in Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison, domestic and international pressure forced President FW de Klerk to free him in 1990.

Mandela and de Klerk declared an end to Apartheid and organised the 1994 multiracial general election in which Mandela and the ANC emerged victorious, and Mandela became President.

(On the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s 100th birth anniversary, The Quint is republishing this story from its archives, originally published on 12 June 2018.)

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